As folks become more aware of ableism, there are listicles and blog posts galore explaining what ableism is, how we do it unconsciously, how to avoid being ableist, how to make spaces more accessible, and so on. This is a great trend in social and indie media that should continue! Unfortunately, all too many, even those by disabled people, use the inaccurate and problematic term “able-bodied.”
The thing is, “able-bodied” erases and others cognitive*, developmental, neurological, and psychiatric disabilities. It plays into the my-mind-is-fine trope and reinforces the medical model of disability. What does “able-bodied” even mean? Which abilities count? Aren’t all bodies able to do a thing or two?
When people use “able-bodied,” to refer to nondisabled people, it separates those with cognitive disabilities from people with physical disabilities as if the two truly were separate– as if the mind weren’t a part of the body. This implies that the mind has a higher status than the body, rather than a place within the body. These concepts, while abstract, subtly reinforce belief-systems that value intelligence, and devalue the lives of people whose disabilities affect their ability to perform intelligence in an ableist and inaccessible world.
“Able-bodied” separates physical from cognitive, developmental, neurological, and psychiatric disability, it sends a message that disabled people are split between those whose “minds are fine” and are therefore deserving of respect, while implying those whose minds aren’t fine are not deserving of the same respect and accommodation or inclusion. Further, it ignores that many people have physical and cognitive, developmental, neurological, or psychiatric disabilities.
Perhaps the most insidious thing that the term “able-bodied” does, is reinforce the medical model by implying that ability lies inside bodies rather than inside the social structure. It directly refutes the social model of disability, which says, in the words of the late and fabulous Stella Young, “that we are more disabled by the society that we live in than by our bodies and our diagnoses.” Meaning that all the abilities in all the bodies and minds are valuable and important, but the world is structured to enable some, while disabling others. As disability activists, self-advocates, and allies seek to show the world a new lens with which to view disability, i.e. the social model, they are undermining it every time they use “able-bodied” when they are describing people who are enabled by the ableist structure of society.
What does “able” really mean in the context of “able-bodied?” It implies that there is a specific set of abilities a body must have in order to be considered to have ability at all. How can we reconcile that with a movement for disability justice that values all abilities, all bodies, and all minds? We can’t– “able-bodied” is simply incorrect and far too loaded to continue using.
Circling back to using the lens of the social model of disability, we can distinguish people who are disabled from those who are not by using the terms “abled” or “enabled,” as in, enabled by the structure and culture of society. We can also center disability in our conversations by using the term “nondisabled.” Some people prefer to use the term “temporarily (en)abled” in order to highlight the reality that being nondisabled in an ableist society isn’t a guaranteed permanent status.
Our words carry lots of information beyond simple definitions. As we push for a more accessible and inclusive world, we should choose our words wisely. It’s time to leave this phrase behind us and incorporate the social model of disability into our language and ideas at every level.
*I prefer to use the term “cognitive disability” over “intellectual disability” because “intellectual disability” is a determination based on IQ, a debunked theory about how the brain works. “Intellectual disability” reinforces the belief that IQ is meaningful, when in truth it tells us nothing about a person’s abilities or ways of using their cognition. “Cognition,” on the other hand, is a word for the ways in which a brain stores, recalls, processes, and expresses information. That’s much more useful and accurate.